Fast facts: Drylands and rangelands

A quick rundown on our planet’s ecosystems

Buffalo in the Black Hills, South Dakota, U.S. Jerry and Pat Donaho, Flickr
16 September 2019
Ming Chun TangSandra Cordon

This photo essay is part of a series on the planet’s major ecosystems, a topic that will be discussed at the Global Landscapes Forum New York on 28 September.

Cotton, Burkina Faso
Baskets of freshly harvested cotton, Sissili Province, Burkina Faso. Olivier Girard/CIFOR

Drylands are areas that suffer from high water scarcity, mainly due to limited rainfall and high temperatures, as well as frequent droughts and heatwaves. They cover 41 percent of the planet’s land area and are found on every continent, though they are especially prevalent in Asia and Africa.

Drylands, Cameroon
Children in Gorom, Cameroon. Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR

The climate places significant constraints on agriculture, livestock grazing and foraging in dryland areas. Despite these limitations, drylands are home to about 2 billion people globally and provide half of the world’s livestock and 44 percent of the world’s cultivated systems.

Reindeer, Svalbard, Norway
A reindeer on mossy tundra in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Allan Hopkins, Flickr

Despite their inhospitable climate, drylands support high levels of biodiversity, which in turn help maintain soil fertility and moisture to support agriculture and prevent drought. The loss of this biodiversity contributes to land degradation. In the context of drylands, degradation is also known as desertification.

Drylands are particularly vulnerable to climatic variations and climate change as well as damaging human activities such as deforestation and overgrazing. This is because dryland soils have relatively low fertility and are particularly susceptible to erosion and nutrient loss.

Mongolia steppe
The steppes of Mongolia. Kate Borkowski, Flickr

Rangelands are ecosystems that are primarily covered by shrubs and grasses. Sometimes also classifying as drylands, they can include prairies, steppes, desert shrublands, shrub woodlands, savannas and tundras, and they cover 40 to 50 percent of the Earth’s land area, spread across every continent except Antarctica.

Pampas, Argentina
The Pampas in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Andrés Soliño, Flickr

Rangelands provide a variety of benefits to both biodiversity and human livelihoods, including serving as watersheds, carbon sinks, and habitats for native wildlife. They are also central to pastoralism, the mobile or sedentary practice of raising livestock. Pastoral livelihoods remain widespread in Africa, western Asia and parts of South America.

One of the main issues affecting both drylands and rangelands is land degradation, which reduces the biological and economic productivity of the land. In rangelands, degradation has made it more difficult for mobile pastoralists to adapt to changing conditions as they migrate across climatic zones.

Mo‘ynoq, Uzbekistan
Abandoned boats in the former fishing and port town of Mo‘ynoq in western Uzbekistan, now located inland due to the receding Aral Sea. Arian Zwegers, Flickr

At least 25 percent of drylands globally have already been degraded, affecting 250 million people, and up to 1 billion people could be at risk in the near future.

Read the rest of our ‘fast facts’ series on ecosystems below.


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